Innovation in Social Policy: Collaborative Policy Advocacy

Article excerpt

The arena for social policy making in the United States is shifting from the federal level to the states (Conlan, 1998; Schneider, Westerberg, & Kasper, 1999). Although policy devolution raises serious challenges for progressive and coherent social policy development--so many battles, so few resources--it offers opportunities for more social workers to become involved in policy work. In contrast to policy advocacy in the U.S. Congress, a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, advocacy in the state capitol is likely to be more accessible and less intimidating, especially for policy novices. At this juncture, social workers have a unique opportunity to develop expertise and organizational skills that will permit the profession a significant voice in constructing state social welfare policy (Schneider, 1988; Schneider & Netting, 1999).

But what does policy advocacy at the state level look like? In this article we have adopted the term policy advocacy, which is defined by Jansson (1999) as policy practice that helps "powerless, stigmatized, and oppressed populations improve their well-being" (p. xvii).

Who gets involved and how? What are the benefits and challenges of policy involvement for social workers? This article examines a method of collaborative policy advocacy led by social work researchers, practitioners, advocates, and students. It is illustrated with a description of a five-year project led by social workers in Missouri that aimed to reduce wealth inequality through community economic development (CED) (Sherraden & Ninacs, 1998; Shragge, 1997). In the first part, we examine devolution and the "new federalism." Second, we present a conceptualization of CED, an approach to economic development that differs from traditional models in its concern for low-income community involvement and building wealth. Finally, we discuss a method that can be used by social workers to bring together researcher, practitioner, advocate, and student expertise on policy innovation at the state level.

Devolution and the "New Federalism:" Policy at the State Level

Although states have long played major roles in transportation, public safety, and education, in social welfare policy they have operated more as a pass through" for federal dollars. But since the 1970s, with congressional approval and prodded by activist governors, states have assumed a greater role in social policy making (Schneider et al., 1999). Other factors contribute to this shift, including increased state revenues, strengthened executive authority, professionalized legislatures and government bureaucracy, and more participation by diverse groups (Conlan, 1998).

Nonetheless, few states are prepared to handle the volume of work needed to manage the sophisticated decision making that these changes imply. For example, in Arkansas the legislature meets for two months only once every two years! Only eight states and the District of Columbia meet all year (National Conference of State Legislatures, 1999). Moreover, an increasing number of states operate under term limits, which are replacing the most experienced legislators with novices.

It stands to reason that if social workers organize, their opportunities for affecting policy increase (Dluhy, 1990). Social workers bring many strengths to policy work, particularly skills in negotiation and in coalition and consensus building. Moreover, they have "on the ground" understanding of how policy affects people's lives (Schneider & Netting, 1999). In the example discussed in this article, a team of micro- and macro-practice social workers worked in collaboration to influence state policy. Each player brought special expertise, as well as organizational resources, to the policy process.

Innovation and Policy

The critical first element in policy advocacy is an innovative idea that promotes social justice (Briar-Lawson, 1998; Figueira-McDonough, 1993). …